The Story That Never Gets Told

I was talking to a fencing mom a few weeks ago about the Junior Olympic Qualifiers in our Division. I must have sounded pretty cynical about the level of fencing I was seeing, and hinted that most of the kids at the qualifiers were probably going to do poorly once they flew across the country to fencing in the Cadet and Junior events.

Cadet and Junior fencing is improving by leaps and bounds in the United States. In many instances, a fencer at Junior Olympics is facing not just the best fencers in the United States, but often the best fencers in their age group in the world. I am flabbergasted by the fact that for some of the kids I’ve talked to, Junior Olympics is their next tournament after their local Division Qualifiers! They fence in a small Division, or they get lucky in a DE and they qualify. Bam! They are at the Junior Olympics, facing someone in their pool who may be a 13 year old “A” fencer just off a Cadet World Cup. Most of these local fencers aren’t ready for that level of fencing.

For some fencers, attending the Junior Olympics (and other big, National events) is an exciting challenge. For others, it’s a crushing defeat. The mom I was talking to told me about her daughter losing badly at her first Junior Olympics, and coming home determined to work harder than ever. Her daughter is now a very successful fencer, and enjoying being on the fencing team in college.

“That’s a great story” I said, “and I’m glad you shared it with me. But who is telling the story of the kids who went to Junior Olympics with little or no experience, scored no, or very few touches, and came home and quit? Who is telling their stories?  We never see that kid again, and the coach certainly isn’t mentioning it. No one is telling the story of that kid that gets punished for being unready.”

It would be easy to blame over anxious parents who want to tell all their friends that their son or daughter is competing in the Junior Olympics. However,  fault also lies with the coaches and club owners who want to brag about how many fencers they’ve qualified to Junior Olympics. In the process of trying to produce good Facebook copy, a club may be sending unprepared kids to large tournaments. These sorts of practices hit directly at our attrition rates for young fencers. I think we would keep a much larger number of kids in the sport if young fencers weren’t pushed  into situations in which they are unprepared for ignominious, crushing defeat. For many of these kids, it makes sense to do more internal tournaments, to partner with another club and run fun intramural events between the clubs, and to generally, give the kids more time to find their comfort level with competition, while winning some bouts, losing some bouts, and making friends.

I know there isn’t much money in that, or bragging rights. It does, however, make for a better story, a story about a kid who has been fencing for five, ten, or fifteen years, and really enjoys it. Even if they never went to the Junior Olympics.